After a first term that felt like it had been taken right out of Lemony Snicket’s never ending ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ the promised winter break that I had been dreaming of for months finally began with the arrival of my first visitor(ish). My older brother, Mark, on the start of his voyage around the world made Hong Kong his first stop.
After being bed-ridden with illness for a week, I packed my bag and hauled myself across the border. I waited in the arrivals hall for 2 hours with no sign of him. I felt a pang of despair as I checked and checked again as to whether I had got the wrong date, tried to get hold of the passenger list for the flight and even went so far as to call my father in the UK to check if he had missed his flight. After another 45 minutes his smiling face finally appeared around the corner and my heart leapt for joy and I almost cried. It had been a long, long winter. Buzzing with excitement we made our way to the lodgings he had chosen for the first stop on his backpacker’s tour around the world. Mark being Mark, we were not staying in some smelly hostel but rather a private apartment complete with plasma screen and iPod dock. I was glad for his take on ‘backpacking’ as this was a welcome upgrade from the shack! The first evening was spent wandering around Central allowing Mark to drink in the comforts associated with a more developed country – public transport that works, no ‘jam’ on the roads, no dust, and things generally getting done. Having spent the last several years in the heart of Africa, his sheer fascination at almost everything was rather amusing. It also helped me re-appreciate Hong Kong.
The next day we ventured up to the Big Buddha. We reached it via ferry and a ride in a large coach driven by a man who fancied himself a formula one driver on the narrow, winding roads of the island. The sights on the way up were beautiful; lush, green vegetation and the winter sun danced vibrantly upon the water as we climbed higher and higher. The large statue of Buddha was sat calmly at the top of a sizeable flight of stairs. However, considering the sheer number of people flanked either side of the staircase panting dramatically you would have thought we were making our way up to the summit of Mount Everest. The sight, although remarkable, lacked the serenity one would expect from such a place as it was heaving with hawkers trying to sell you plastic junk that you did not want. We then took a glass-bottomed cable car down where we got a great view of the Buddha, surrounding islands and the airport which looks as though it is precariously balanced on the water. I’m glad I did not know that before! In the cable car with us was a Chinese family with a woman who kept grabbing my hand to take photos of it probably because, compared to her tiny paw, it must have looked like it belonged to Godzilla.
That evening we went ‘local’ for our dinner and ate amongst hanging ducks and miserable waiters who tried to get us to hurry up, eat and leave as soon as we had sat down. The amusement continued as Mark attempted to eat rice and duck with chopsticks, one stick in each hand. We then decided to try out a couple of little bars. The first called ‘Joyce is Not Home’, was a tiny corridor-sized bar with a double bass that took up most of the space and boho clientele who visibly had to refrain from clicking when applauding the jazz band. The second, recommended by a former colleague, was called the ‘Feather Boa’. This bar had no sign on the door and looked just like an antique shop with curtains drawn closed for the night. We would have missed it completely had it not been for the queue of people who looked like they were waiting aimlessly. We joined the queue and minutes later a tiny Asian lady opened the door and barked ‘how many?’ at the couple at the front of the queue before nodding curtly and slamming the door shut. After another five minutes the door opened and about 15 people merrily poured out. Without letting anyone in, the tiny lady slammed the door shut again and we were left to wait for another 15 minutes. It felt like we were trying to enter a speakeasy during prohibition. Finally it was our turn and we entered another tiny corridor-sized bar. It was decorated with old chandeliers, wing-back chairs and other miss-matched furniture creating the atmosphere of a well-worn stately home. It was so tiny that it was hard to imagine where those 15 people had been stood! The atmosphere was convivial and you were in such close proximity to others that you could not help but join in their conversations as you sipped your Strawberry Daiquiri Slushy.
One of the items on Mark’s bucket list was to have dim-sum in Hong Kong. Very kindly my friend Charlie showed us to one of the last remaining traditional teahouses in Hong Kong where we were joined by my friend from Shenzhen Tessa and her sister Polly who had come to visit. We entered and a waiter signalled with his head for us to take seats at a table in the far back corner where we intruded on a couple’s lunch. In this restaurant, your tea is topped up by a man who looks old enough to have served the emperors of old and the food is pushed around on trolleys by women who guard it aggressively as a bird would its eggs. It is a fight to the death to claim one of the wooden baskets from the trolley and the hardest part is being skilled enough to pick up something tasty. The first round began and we immediately struck out. Falling prey to a custard filled desert-like cloud and, worst of all, red bean bun, we spat out most of it and resolved to have a better second round in the ring. There was a mad rush at the trolley on the other side of the room and as he was closest we sent Mark over to grab what he could. Others staggered back to their tables, barely able to see over their mountains of wooden baskets and yet Mark returned empty handed retorting simply that not only was there nothing appetizing to be had but he had also had to employ heroic amounts of self-control to prevent himself from throwing up on the trolley. After a while another trolley came round. This lady was extremely helpful (or just a good saleswoman) as she placed multiple baskets on our table, pausing to laugh heartily at Charlie who had managed to drop a slimy eye-ball like piece of food in his tea. After a good chuckle, she helped him by using a spoon to fish the object out of his teacup, plonking it in his bowl. At least she took the trouble to refill his tea (in the same cup). At this moment, Mark reminded us of his shellfish allergy and thus the 4 of us had to taste everything first as nothing in the baskets could be identified using sight alone. Considering opinions varied from ‘this tastes like fish-beef’ to ‘it’s kind of like a meat apple crumble…oh wait, that’s definitely a prawn’ I’m astounded he survived. That afternoon, Charlie, Mark and I went up The Peak for a wander, picking out the perfect spot for our future mansions. In the evening we had a rather delicious but sombre dinner as we were approaching the end of our time together; a fantastic time it had been too. One brief and sad goodbye later, I was sat in the departure lounge preparing for my next adventure and listening, most appropriately, to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkN4J2l1UaA